Keep it simple, not stupid, says nominated CIO

Not all IT managers have the ability to deal with a wide range of people, says Kerry Elton, who oversees the small team at Wellington port facility Centreport.

Not all IT managers have the ability to deal with a wide range of people, says Kerry Elton, who oversees the small team at Wellington port facility Centreport.

“Here you need to get staff who can relate to somebody in a pair of overalls just as well as they can to the CEO.”

Centreport operates the sophisticated real-time cargo and harbour management programme from Cardinal PortTec, and maintains a website that allows clients and the public to track the status of a piece of cargo or container.

Elton believes pragmatism and simplicity of communication are important in the role of CIO, yet she also stresses that IT management is the same as any other sector, since her IT staff must deal with a diverse range of people. These range from forklift drivers to non English-speaking clientele overseas (Elton anticipates the need for her support staff to become multilingual). “Therefore you need to implement solutions that are workable for everybody,” she says.

Elton, along with Tony Darby from the Auckland Regional Council, is in line for the CIO of the year award at next month’s Computerworld Excellence Awards. She sees IT as Centreport’s competitive advantage.

“Our company values IT hugely, and we have recognised that to be able to survive, IT literally has to underpin anything we do.”

Darby’s recent coup de grace has been the launch of the interactive Rideline website, which provides public transport timetable information and is set to broadcast timetables out to WAP-enabled mobile phones.

Darby oversees 60 staff, including a public service centre and a finance department (which Darby notes with a chuckle is a unique position for someone from a purely IT background to be in: “The tables have turned!”).

Does being part of a regional governmental body like the ARC mean the role of CIO is different from those in corporations? No, says Darby. “I think across all sectors, it takes common sense to be a good CIO. “It’s about painting a picture of where you want to be, and being pragmatic about how you get there,” he says.

And on a technical level, Darby emphasises the way technology can now simplify and enhance good business practice. “You’ve got to think about the value of simplicity versus the costs of complexity to an organisation. That’s key for a CIO.”

The common ground for corporates and the public sector is the balancing act of following the bottom line while allowing staff to have flexible and creative input into their work, he says. “We’re not a business, but we try to be business-like. We incorporate the same disciplines you’d find in a commercial environment,” he says.

“But still, I love working for local government, because you’re dealing in the public good, and contributing to the well-being of society.”

Darby is also quick to praise his chief executive, Jo Brosnahan, who is nominated in CEO IT Vision of the year.

“She’s passionate about leadership, and is really supportive of the IT team,” he says. Brosnahan is nominated with Pat Galloway from Snell Packaging and Stationery and Jack Matthews from TelstraSaturn.

Brosnahan herself places enormous trust in Darby, and brought him with her from the Northland Regional Council.

Her restructuring of the Auckland Regional Council has concentrated the organisation’s information in Darby’s team.

That coordination creates good communications both within the ARC, and outside to the general public. “We have 1.2 million stockholders out there,” says Brosnahan. “All of them own us, and we’re here at their behest. So IT lets us have conversations with the public, and gives them opportunities to have input,” she says. “For us, the internet is the future.”

Galloway, from stationery distributor Snell, says his firm’s strength can be found in the software his in-house team developed three years ago to track stock and view internal and external business trends. That accounting intranet has proved so useful that it has flowered into a full e-commerce operation — in tandem with e-commerce specialists Incubator — that allows clients to place orders for goods.

The software provides new and revealing ways to view sales and stock data. “Every day a new idea springs up, the software is built within a week or so, and before you know it we’re looking at our information from another angle,” says Galloway.

“This commitment to IT is an enormous investment for a company of this size,” he says. “But at the end of the day it is our competitive advantage.”

For TelstraSaturn’s chief executive, Jack Matthews, his nomination in the awards came as something of a surprise, since he insists that the nature of his shapeshifting firm — with fingers in many pies — lies not in IT, but in adaptable IS: information systems. “We will live or die on our ability to redefine the nature of our business away from telecommunications and into the ‘convergence-space’,” he says.

But Matthews also puts a lot of his faith in his staff. TelstraSaturn’s CIO reports directly to him, and the IT — or IS — department is central to the firm’s decision-making processes. “In some companies, that doesn’t happen,” he says. “But to me it is very important.”

“We’re not just a telecomms, not just an ISP, and not just a digital TV company,” Jack Matthews says. “We’re chasing niche audiences with niche product.” But the telecommunications network background of TelstraSaturn has indeed facilitated its diversification.

“If you build something that allows you to do your core business very efficiently, but also lets you do other things because of its functionality or capacity, that opens up some markets that perhaps you’re uniquely positioned to go after,” he says.

“Our strategy is based on ensuring that the kinds of investment decisions and information systems we put in place we make today don’t preclude us from executing other decisions tomorrow.”

The annual Computerworld Excellence Awards will be held on July 6 at the Carlton Hotel in Auckland.

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